Monthly Archives: July 2018

“Incredibles 2” Movie Review

What we have to take away from this sequel isn’t that superheroes are an overly saturated form of escapism that gradually makes human beings weaker and more vulnerable. No, what we take away is that 14 years after the original film, Brad Bird is STILL able to school young filmmakers and producers on how to make a truly playful blockbuster. This computer-animated superhero adventure marks the 20th overall feature film from Pixar Animation Studios. Released worldwide on June 15th, 2018, the film has unsurprisingly been able to swallow up over $793 million at the box office, boosted up by strong reviews and high anticipation. Following some pessimism at the summer box office, it managed to set a new record for the biggest opening weekend of all time for an animated film, finally surpassing the 3rd Ice Age film after 9 years. Once again written and directed by Brad Bird, the idea for a sequel to The Incredibles gestated with the filmmaker for many years but promised he would only make one when he felt he had a worthy story. Reportedly, he took some story thread ideas that never made it into the first installment and tried to expand on them. It wasn’t until after the premiere of 2015’s Tomorrowland that he officially committed to making the sequel a reality. When Pixar swapped the release date with Toy Story 4, he had to rush through and try and complete everything in time. Picking up immediately where the original film left off, the superpowered Parr family yet again comes under political and public scrutiny after an attempt to save the city goes awry. When all hope seems lost, they are approached by Winston and Evelyn Deavor, a brother and sister in charge of a powerful telecommunications corporation. Winston is a big fan of superheroes and offers them a chance to regain favor and legislation that would allow them to relive the “glory days.” Bob/Mr. Incredible agrees to stay at home with the kids while Elastigirl takes part in the publicity stunt, only to go head-to-head with a mysterious new villain known as the Screenslaver. This is a sequel that I have been anxiously waiting to see in theaters for over a decade now. (Just saying that makes me feel so old) The Incredibles isn’t just one of my favorite Pixar movies, but also easily in my top 5 favorite superhero films ever. And I have also really enjoyed Bird’s Ratatouille as well as his transition to live-action with the superbly directed actioner Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol. So imagine the surprise on my face when he FINALLY announced that a sequel to his animated masterpiece was already on the way. I felt that more so when the release date was pushed up. Even so, I tried to be cautious because, with the exception of Toy Story 3, Pixar doesn’t have a great track record with animated sequels. Thankfully, I wasn’t let down because this movie was so much fun, I loved Incredibles 2 almost as much as the first. As with last time, one of the best things about this film is that Brad Bird understands the tropes of the superhero genre so well. The world has seen a lot of change since the year 2004, not the least of which is the unbelievably lucrative genre of superhero movies. The filmmakers seem to understand that and go beyond the traditional definition of what a hero really is. It’s not just what Elastigirl is doing in public, but Bob singlehandedly trying to keep all 3 of his wildly different children in line. As the costume designer Edna puts it, “Parenting, when done properly, is a heroic act.” On the other end of the spectrum, the good public work that the family is putting proves an inspiration to other “supers.” One such moment came in the introduction of Voyd, a Kristen Stewart-like super with the ability to create portals that looks up to Elastigirl as a childhood hero. Most of the original cast members, save for Dash, return for the second go-around and haven’t lost an ounce of their touch. In a truly smart move, Holly Hunter is pushed to the forefront in a chance to shine as Elastigirl, with all the toughness of a badass and the warmth of a truly caring mother. Craig T. Nelson, in a fantastic role switch, is hilarious as he struggles with taking charge of the kids, each with their own set of challenges. Newcomers Catherine Keener and Bob Odenkirk both do great work as the Deavor siblings. Keener’s world-weary cynicism feels perfectly parallel to Odenkirk’s wide-eyed optimism for the return of superheroes. But let’s be honest: The real scene-stealer was Jack-Jack the Parr’s infant son who’s just discovering his own powers. In normal hands, these scenes with Jack-Jack and his family’s dealing with them could come off as unappealing and be pandering. But Bird, well-aware of the excitement and terrors of parenthood, explores it with wondrous possibilities and uses brilliant timing to his advantage. As one can always expect from Pixar, the behind-the-scenes technical aspects for Incredibles 2 are absolutely to die for. The thing I love most about Brad Bird’s animation is that he’s able to make it feel so cinematic and playful. The action is framed and shown almost entirely in rotoscope, allowing us to really seem like it’s a live-action film. This goes for the fantastic lighting effects, which illuminate every single scene perfectly. However, there is one particular moment with rapidly flashing strobes that could prove too much for certain viewers. And of course, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. The differences between this film and its predecessor are almost night and day, with character movements and emotions being captured so flawlessly. It also helps that the use of bright colors and tones make it a joy to look at, and one of the more visually distinctive films of the genre in recent years. Michael Giacchino returns to provide the instrumental score for this sequel, and it’s just as fun as last time. The soundtrack uses similar sounds and leitmotifs from the previous installment, such as piercing trumpet lines and jazzy saxophones. Once again, along with old-school percussion equipment, it feels like an espionage thriller from the 60’s or 70’s. New tracks include ones that rely on low strings or plucked harps, typically during moments of mystery. While not as intense as the original, it still feels right for what they went for. There are also some interesting vocal tracks recorded by Disney’s a capella group, meant to be old-fashioned theme songs for the adult heroes. Not only was this really inspired but also gave more characterization to the world that they inhabit. My main issue with the film, as I’m sure other reviewers probably pointed out, was the villain Screenslaver. As the plot progresses and we learn more about their motivations and plans, there is an element that makes sense to their logic. In fact, in some ways, they’re actually right and justified in what happens. But the way in which they were revealed felt kind of underwhelming and a lesser version of Syndrome in the first film. By the time the final showdown came, it felt as though there was an emotional connection or tension that was missing. Aside from that, Incredibles 2 is a rollicking family adventure worthy of the titular heroes. I’m genuinely surprised and pleased with how much effort Brad Bird put into making this sequel over the years. One can only imagine where a third installment could go, but hopefully, we won’t have to wait another 14 years to see it. In any case, this one was worth the wait.

 

 

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“Unbreakable” Movie Review

Every single film snob out there who posits that superhero movies could never take place in the “real world” clearly weren’t around for the pre-Marvel Studios boom. I’m not just talking about The Dark Knight (Which turns 10 years old this month) but something that was never even based on an existing comic book. This superhero psychological thriller- written, co-produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan -was released on November 22nd, 2000. With a relatively small budget of $75 million, the film managed to gross over $248 million at the worldwide box office. It’s somewhat disappointing box office intake, as well as the polite reaction from critics and audiences, were partially blamed on Touchstone Pictures’ marketing campaign. It has since garnered a huge cult following, as well as a recently confirmed sequel due out in 2019. Following the massive, unexpected success of his previous film The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan outlined the film’s screenplay and structure like that of a comic book. With the two lead characters written in mind for the actors portraying them, he decided to turn it into a straight-up hero/villain origin story. The spec script ended up being sold to Disney for $5 million, a record deal at the time, who in turn helped the director form his own production company. Bruce Willis stars as David Dunn, a stadium security guard who is struggling to salvage his marriage and life in Philadelphia. On a train home from a job interview in New York City, the Eastrail 177 crashes- but Dunn emerges the only survivor, without a single broken bone or injury sustained. Getting word of this “miracle,” comic book art gallery owner Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson, contacts Dunn and approaches him with the idea that he might actually be a superhero. Despite being stricken with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, which makes all of his bones brittle, Price keeps a watchful eye over Dunn’s actions as they both begin to realize their place in the world. How on earth did M. Night Shyamalan go from being proclaimed “the next Spielberg” to becoming the laughing stock of Hollywood? I’ve made no secret about my hatred for The Last Airbender and After Earth, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy his earlier films. For the longest time, I had been dying to see his take on the superhero genre, especially since it came right before the genre had exploded. And now, with Split out and Glass officially coming to theaters next January, I figured now would be as good a time as any to check out Unbreakable. And it is by far my favorite Shyamalan picture. Moreover, it’s a wonderfully original take on the superhero origin story. The marketing campaign sold it as the next supernatural thriller from the man behind “I see dead people.” When in reality, this really is, as director Quentin Tarantino put it, a story in which Superman hypothetically lived on Earth without knowing his full abilities. In fact, in many ways, the film does a better job at deepening the purpose and artistry of comic books than most movies adapted from the illustrated pages. As Elijah Price says, “I believe comic books are a form of history that someone, somewhere felt or experienced. Then, of course, those experiences and history got chewed up by the commercial machine, got jazzed up, made a titillating cartoon for the sale rack.” The opening text, alone, perfectly shows why comics are such a big and important cornerstone in modern pop culture. That, combined with the surprisingly serious tone, makes it feel as though it takes place in a world that you can reach out and touch. It’s easy to see why the main characters were written in mind for the leads because they pull it off so easily. Despite his list of cool roles over his career, I’m fairly positive that this is Bruce Willis’ best performance yet. Like his work in The Sixth Sense, he’s so subtle and quiet for much of the movie, yet you can feel a history of emotional pain. That he never really achieved something truly amazing in his life, that his marriage to the woman he loves is about to fall apart, that he’s disconnected from his own son. Opposite him, Samuel L. Jackson is equally subdued but no less excellent as Elijah Price. As obsessive as he is calculating, his occasional dips into being over the top are perfectly fit for that of a supervillain, especially with his self-given nickname Mr. Glass. Other performers like Robin Wright and Spencer Treat Clark as Dunn’s family, and Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s concerned mother add something unique to the experience. Meanwhile, Shyamalan shows us that he really does have a wonderful eye for filmmaking techniques. Shot by Eduardo Serra, primarily working with European auteurs, the cinematography is extremely precise and controlled. Most scenes are shown on steady single long takes, which arguably gives the cast more room to breathe. The shot composition is arranged in such a unique way that it actually emulates a real comic book panel. The use of color by editor Dylan Tichenor further illustrates this by assigning certain hues to characters or situations. For example, whereas David Dunn’s livelihood is dominated by shades of green, Mr. Glass is primarily shown in purple. And in certain sequences, a character’s clothes will be highlighted brightly, in contrast to the dreary palette of the real world. For fans of comics, this is certain to be a delightful round of catching homages, especially as Elijah explains specific artistic aspects of the medium. James Newton Howard, the director’s frequent collaborator, composes and conducts one of the best instrumental scores for a superhero film. The main theme song is very singular and unconventional, utilizing an electronic drum kit mixed with different sounds and strings, building up a huge crescendo. Other tracks use simplistic instruments such as minimal trumpets and rousing percussion tools like timpanis and piano. While most of them are made to create a sort of misterioso tone- appropriate as the main hero discovers his own powers -others feel so inspirational and weeping that they feel like they belong in a classic Hollywood epic. And the best part is that they’re all perfectly timed with each moment; the director reportedly showed Howard the storyboards in order to establish what he wanted. And it really shows. Also, I’m really surprised by the generally negative response to this film’s ending. Shyamalan is a director who is famous (Or perhaps infamous) for including a twist in the final scene that shakes up the plot. In his later films, there is justification for this criticism as it felt as though he was just throwing it in for its own sake. I can moderately understand that, as it’s partially wrapped up through epilogue text. I won’t spoil the twist ending in this film, but as with The Sixth Sense, the ending here not only makes perfect sense to me, it also improves a lot with repeat viewings. I’ve watched this film twice within 24 hours, and it only gets better. Unbreakable is a truly inspirational and realistic take on an often disrespected medium. Whatever you may think of his later films, there’s almost no denying that this is M. Night Shyamalan’s true masterpiece. What really makes the film special, aside from everything said above, is that it makes you believe that you, too, might be a superhero. That you have the capacity within to do good work and help people who need it. And for that, I can safely count it as one of the best, and most original, superhero films ever put to the silver screen.

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“Ocean’s 8” Movie Review

Nothing like watching a bunch of really beautiful people pulling off a seemingly implausible heist for about 2 hours. There are probably a billion better ways to spend an afternoon, but this one doesn’t so bad at all. Produced on a budget of $70 million, this crime caper comedy was released worldwide on June 8th, 2018, grossing over $244 million at the box office so far. This is helped by a wave of surprisingly favorable reviews for the film, becoming something of a sleeper hit for many. Directed by Gary Ross, who previously helmed the first installment of The Hunger Games, Steven Soderbergh vowed for a good number of years that Ocean’s Thirteen would be the last film in the series. However, he did approve of a female-led spin-off starting in October of 2015. Soderbergh remained onboard as a producer, while Matt Damon reprised his role in a scene that was ultimately cut from the final product. Sandra Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean, the late Danny Ocean’s younger sister, and a professional con artist like her sibling. Following her release from prison, Debbie and her best friend/partner-in-crime Lou, played by Cate Blanchett, plan on stealing a valuable necklace worth $150 million at the annual Met Gala in New York City. In order to pull it off, they recruit 5 other female criminals, each with a different, specific area of expertise, to help realize the plan. But one thing stands in the way: the necklace is being worn by celebrity guest Daphne Kluger, who is almost impossible to trick. So Ocean’s Eleven is genuinely one of my favorite crime movies from the 2000’s. It would probably never appear on any “Best of all time” lists or be seen as a cinematic masterpiece, but it does serve as a nice round of undemanding escapism that oozes so much confidence and charisma. Truth be told, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing a spin-off of any kind, especially because the two sequels, Twelve and Thirteen, were pretty underwhelming. I enjoyed the first Hunger Games movie but was frequently annoyed by its poor direction and horrendously shaky camera. That being said, I found myself drawn to the theater, probably because Steven Soderbergh still had involvement in the production. There’s also just something oddly appealing about watching a lot of stars I love playing criminals with hearts of gold while looking pretty. And that’s more or less what one can expect from Ocean’s 8, which yet again provides some effortless entertainment to spare. However, I’m not very convinced that this film actually had to be connected to the Ocean‘s franchise in any way, shape, or form. With a talented ensemble and crew working together at this level of skill, it could have easily been a completely brand new, female-fronted I.P. for Warner Bros. The fact that Debbie is the younger sister of George Clooney’s character doesn’t really have a big effect on the storyline at all. The only exceptions are a few scenes mentioning it in passing as well as both Elliot Gould and Shaobo Qin briefly reprising their small roles in certain moments. Aside from that, it kind of feels like a forced form of brand recognition in an effort to bring bigger bucks from audiences. In the end, it just seems a little bit smug of the studio to slap the name on the title. But that’s not to say the leading ladies don’t make it fun to watch; they really prove their worth. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sandra Bullock, but I’m happy to report that she’s great in here. She’s almost natural at being a con artist, as it’s often hard to tell whether she’s acting genuine or has something else up her sleeve. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, fresh off being the Competition Jury President at this year’s Cannes, puts in smooth work as her partner-in-crime. Right at home with her native Australian accent, she’s arguably the slipperiest and hardest of the group to pin down. The other team members are played by Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, and Sarah Paulson, each of whom are clearly having fun in their roles. Anne Hathaway plays Daphne Kluger, and she seems strangely made for the part. Beautiful but airheaded, it feels reminiscent of her early roles in films like The Devil Wears Prada. It’s all capped off by a number of cool celebrity cameos at the Met Gala that I’m not even gonna try and name off. And while Gary Ross may not have the same skills as Soderbergh, he still demonstrates wonderous technical proficiency with the heist. The cinematography by Eigil Bryld, mostly known for work in indie productions, makes crime in New York look very handsome and smooth. Although it’s in danger of being glossy at times, it still manages to capture all of the leading ladies and various other celebrities at the Met Gala in all their gorgeous outfits, especially at nighttime. Meanwhile, the editing by Juliette Welfling keeps the pacing aloof and allows for some interesting cuts and contrasts between moments. When the heist itself goes down, the way the camera moves from different perspectives, sometimes ones simultaneously. It keeps the tension up high enough to retain the attention of audience members throughout the 110 minute-long runtime. Despite that tension, though, you know pretty much exactly how the story is going to go down. As with the previous Ocean’s movies, as well as as 2017’s Logan Lucky, it follows almost all of the familiar beats that one could expect from these types of films. Again, had it been an original film rather than a continuing franchise, it probably would have been a lot better and more dynamic. But yet I reiterate, it’s still able to provide some nice entertainment. Ocean’s 8 is a wholly unnecessary but effortlessly charming caper. While it plays things a little too safe for its own good, if you just want to watch a movie that completely takes your mind off of any real-world stress or activities, this is a good start to that. One thing’s for sure, though: I still don’t really understand the appeal of high fashion. Sorry.

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“Hereditary” Movie Review

After coming home from watching this movie, I had to take a long, thorough shower while the images kept burning in my brain. Whatever you do, do NOT take your whole family out to see this film. You will all regret it for years to come. This psychological horror drama premiered as part of the Midnight section at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Following another screening at the 2018 South By Southwest Film Festival, it finally arrived in theaters on June 8th. Despite high praise from critics and journalists, audiences gave a mixed reaction to the film, scoring it a D+ on CinemaScore. But that doesn’t really seem to be deterring its success, as it has already accumulated over $62 million at the worldwide box office. Written and directed by Ari Aster, this marks his feature-length debut after producing a number of similarly dark short films. According to him, the story is inspired by a number of harsh, unhappy occurrences in his family which he refuses to share details of. And while he was making the movie, approached it “not as a horror film, but as a tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” Toni Collette stars as Annie Graham, a miniaturist artist seemingly unhappy with how her life has turned out. When her mysterious and reclusive mother dies of natural causes, she, her husband, and her two children deal with the tragedy in their own separate ways. However, the whole family finds itself in even more of a struggle when they have to deal with some sort of evil spirit left behind by the grandmother. And over the next 2 hours, we get to watch as their sanity and unity slowly falls apart, piece by piece. Now, I have been really looking forward to seeing Hereditary since the first reviews poured in from Sundance. It’s always exciting when a new, young filmmaker wants to give audiences frights in unique ways, and the distributor A24 is a master at finding those voices. In fact, they have been churning out low-key horror masterpieces at such a steady rate in the last few years, that we almost take their films for granted. The marketing cleverly worked around how to promote the film, and yet I tried to caution myself. I’ve had a tendency in the past to get overly excited about hits on the festival circuit that end up being disappointing to me. So keeping that in mind, I really wanted to like Hereditary but tried not to let the hype train override my feelings toward it. And yet, my expectations were completely blown out of the water; this is one of the best and most disturbing horror films I’ve seen in quite a while. And you should be careful when you read that sentence because everyone has a very different, subjective view of what makes something scary. For some, they may just want to have a good time with gore and jump scares. And while this can often be fun, (Some of my favorites fit that very description) it kind of diminishes the potential effects that horror can have on a viewing experience. The ability to dig deep underneath your skin, crawl up and down, and rack your brain with haunting imagery that will stay in your dreams for days; if not weeks. In the entire runtime of the movie, there was only one jump scare… and it scared the living bejeezus out of me. As the credits rolled, my friend and I were left completely speechless and didn’t speak a word on the way home to one another. I even had to take a shower when I got home and put on some funny cartoons to cheer myself up. It’s been a very long time since something like that has happened to me after watching a movie. I’ve been impressed with some of Toni Collette’s roles in the past, but this might just be the best performance of her career. A far cry from her turn in The Sixth Sense, she is seriously depressed and unhappy as Annie, unable to find healthy ways to cope with grief and death. All of the hype circling a potential Academy Award nomination for her certainly isn’t out of the question. Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff do similarly extraordinary work as both her husband and teenage son, respectively. The understated anguish on their faces throughout the runtime show all the inner turmoil these two go through after the grandmother’s death. Also worth noting is newcomer Milly Shapiro and prolific character actress Ann Dowd as the daughter and mysterious friend, respectively. Neither one is particularly easy to pin-down, and both are good at making the audience feel uneasy. And whilst this may only be Aster’s first feature, the technical aspects reveal him as an artist in complete control of his own craft. The harsh cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski mutes several colors as it steadily moves about the characters’ lives. Often times, whenever some bigger scene is happening, the camera will push in on one of the Grahams, almost to an uncomforting degree. It does an incredible job at fusing the layout of their household and livelihoods with the miniature houses and figures that Annie creates, as evidenced by the haunted, unbroken opening shot. The editing is done collaboratively by both Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston, whose work cuts together scenes beautifully. Whereas one scene could be made entirely of only a couple takes, others could be precisely edited with multiple back-and-forth cuts. The unease either of them creates in the viewer all adds up to an incredibly effective, bleak atmosphere. It’s still kind of amazing to think that Ari Aster had never made a film before this one. I’m curious to check out his shorts to get an idea of what else this guy is really capable of in a cinematic landscape. Certainly not for the impatient or faint of heart, Hereditary is a profoundly disturbing and upsetting horror drama with heady concepts. Hearing how the director has already been rejecting movie offers from major studios makes me excited for his future career. The imagery still burns in my mind and the dark themes will keep swimming in my mind for a long time.

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100 Followers Special Post- Thank You, and What This Site Has Meant to Me

I literally cannot believe I’ve gotten here. There’s a wave of different but equally strong emotions coming over me. To some, it may seem somewhat inconsequential, but I absolutely have to something about it. Today, I have just earned over 100 Followers on my WordPress website. That is a huge and important number to me for a multitude of reasons. There’s simply so much that I want to say and acknowledge before carrying on with normal Blog Posts. Allow me to start by telling you a story. On June 30th, 2014, I was at a particularly transitional period in my life. I was in high school, more and more responsibilities were being dropped on my shoulders, and very few options for future job opportunities sounded very appealing to me. But then, my bright little sister, very much aware of my deep and passionate love of cinema, suggested I could start a blog. She and some of her friends had tried it a few years earlier but for some reason never got back around to it. I was looking to improve my writing skills, as I had some stories I really wanted to tell but wasn’t sure if I could. So I went out on a whim and created a WordPress account. The very first film review I ever published on my new Blong, titled Geek’s Landing as a play-on from Game of Thrones, was for Disney’s Maleficent. It was little more than a paragraph long and, in retrospect, I think I was far too forgiving to that film. And yet, the allure of sharing my opinion on films I had seen kept drawing me back to the desktop. So I wrote another review, this time for Snowpiercer by Bong Joon-Ho. Then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, then Guardians of the Galaxy. Then I started expanding and talking about video games and even T.V. shows every now and then. My reviews got longer and longer, the writing got better and better, and my opinions became more structurally formed. The whole time, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from having a Blog like this. What would people think of a kid from Austin, Texas, trying to share his passion with the world, when it may seem boring to others? I don’t have any social media whatsoever so if I have had an opinion on something, it was either writing up a new Blog Post or sending a letter to the local newspaper editor. If someone “Liked” my posts, it was good. I got one occasionally, but it wasn’t anything worth boasting. And then, on July 25th of that year, I had gotten my first official Follower; the user’s name was jgiambrone, and he still posts new stuff every day. And as more and more users Followed my Blog over the next 4 years, my confidence and organization skills grew. Which is why I wanted to take a moment here on Geek’s Landing to show you that I truly appreciate all of the support that I have received from fellow readers and users. Seriously, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for sticking through, because it hasn’t always been easy. More than once, writing reviews or compiling “Best Of” lists on here has helped me chug through some extremely emotional periods of my life. At one point, I legitimately considered terminating this website and quitting my hobby altogether. Yet somehow, I still felt the need to write reviews for the people who kept Following me. And so I pressed onward, and it’s done so much more than just give me the idea that I might be popular online when I really wasn’t in real life. No, it’s made me truly realize that I am not the only one out there who loves watching movies and talking about them. That there are more people who feel truly passionate about the medium in the same way as I do. And I’m not trying to compete with my fellow movie critics here on WordPress. I am saying that you guys, especially, as well as every other user who has kept up or been curious with my writings, has helped reinforce my passion and why I one day want to be a part of it. In fact, I have actually written a number of screenplays just over this past year that I’m really excited about. Most of them are still in early draft stages, but there are a couple that I feel the most confident about making soon. I’ll hopefully have more details to share with y’all on them once I can get a financier from the Austin or San Marcos area involved. (If you know of any, please don’t hesitate to point me in their direction) Plus, a handful of my friends or colleagues might be willing to lend me a helping hand in production. And again, any of that probably wouldn’t have been possible without you guys, without your consistent support. No matter what my family might expect of me as an adult, or no matter how many educators and peers scoff at my excitement for it, I can always live with the comfort that at least some people on WordPress or other places will share my passion for cinema. Don’t worry, I do still intend to keep writing reviews and all as time goes on. But I just really wanted to let everyone reading know how much this Blog has genuinely changed my life for the better. And I look forward to whatever it brings to me, whether on this website or in real life elsewhere.

“American Animals” Movie Review

This is likely going to turn into a scenario where the people who keep demanding something new or innovative in cinema will reject this movie as “too arthouse” or “too weird.” If that happens, that means the filmmakers are on the right track for a solid career in the industry. This highly unconventional heist thriller premiered as part of the official competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up by both The Orchard and the newly formed distributor MoviePass Ventures. Entering a limited theatrical release on June 1st, the film expanded into more theaters and has managed to gross nearly $3 million at the box office. Written and directed by Bart Layton, the film marks his first foray into narrative features, following his breakout with the 2012 documentary The Imposter. Layton virtually expands the elements on atmospheric reenactments from that film to feature-length here. Based on a crazy true story, the film follows 4 college students- Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk -attending Transylvania University in Kentucky. The college library there is home to several priceless antique books, including two filled with very famous animal paintings by John James Audubon. In the 2003-2004 academic year, for reasons that still remain unclear, the men start joking about robbing the library blind. But they soon become serious about it, researching crime movies for help on their endeavor, setting up potential buyers for the books, and ultimately get ready to pull off one of the most daring heists in recent U.S. history. Movies centered on heists are hardly anything new in cinema these days, there are just so many of them. Any time a new one comes out, they have to REALLY work hard to impress me or stand out from the crowd in any way. And a former documentarian deciding to take on the story of 4 privileged white dudes pulling off a particularly stupid crime on a college campus? Interesting angle, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’ll be anything special or memorable. And just because it premiered and competed at Sundance or any other festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be worth the trouble of seeing in theaters, let alone worth reviewing. So take that as a sign of how much I liked Amercian Animals; I really had a lot of fun watching this movie. And trust me when I say that no reader here has ever seen any film quite like this in their whole life. Bart Layton may be working primarily with professional actors, but that doesn’t stop him from using his docudrama expertise to his advantage. While most of the film is told in a narrative fashion, it is directly followed by talking head interviews from the real-life subjects. They offer unique reflections on how everything went down, from first meeting one another to the sweat-inducing heist itself. But rather than just have them explain everything exactly as it happened, the filmmakers smartly decide to just let them provide more context as to their actions and motivations. Even better, each of them remembers certain scenarios or actions differently than others, providing both a slick comedic edge and some unreliable narrator shenanigans. Admittedly, it’s a little frustrating because it’s still left unclear why these 4 men did what they did. But I definitely enjoyed watching Layton try to add more thematic depth to the story. Errol Morris would be proud. Agents, studios, and cinephiles all need to start paying more attention to the 4 main actors in this movie. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do great in their respective roles, but Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan play Warren and Spencer, the ringleaders of the operation, and do particularly fantastic work together. Keoghan, who had a wonderful breakout last year with Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer as a decent, naive kid who seems unsure of what he wants in life, a quality many can relate to. Peters, meanwhile, is a total revelation as Warren. This is wholly different from his turn as Quicksilver in the new X-Men movies. He’s unpredictable, brazenly entitled, manipulative, profane, but also spiteful for no reason. His flawed logic for stealing the antique books is both insane and tragic, painting himself as more than just a sociopathic narcissist. It becomes disorderly and honestly somewhat unsettling when he becomes convinced that he can be just like a smooth criminal from the movies. From a purely technical point of view, there is an amazing amount of skill and confidence behind the camera. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s widescreen cinematography skillfully captures each environment and tone of each scene with grace. In some of the students’ imagined scenarios’, it’s all taken on slick, dynamic single-take shots. Other instances, like when things don’t seem to be going according to plan, it becomes very unsteady and shaky, at times a little disorienting. It also nails the atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and more hard-edged as the film goes along. The editing is a collaborative effort between Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley, and Julian Hart. It uses very precise cuts, moving back and forth from the acting portrayal to the real criminals themselves. For example, in one scene, Spencer begins a sentence, only to be finished by the real Spencer. It also works to create interesting visual contradictions between the subjects. A few hard cuts elicited a good laugh or two out of me. The musical score here is composed and conducted by Anne Nikitin, who had previously worked with Layton on The Imposter. The score is decidedly modern and appropriately moody for the material at hand, utilizing a number of synthesizers and severely low strings that would (hopefully) bring Johann Johannson back to life. She also uses some neat percussive instruments to wring out the tension in the viewer and softer electric guitar strums to provide an emotional through line. In some ways, it felt like a neverending crescendo as we watch the situation get more and more complicated. There are also a number of obscure songs from bygone rock and folk artists. It’s weird to say that songs by both Mobb Deep and The Doors fit perfectly in the same movie, but that’s how it is. Just like the original tracks, at times it’s playful and others it’s dead serious. I feel like this has a broader appeal than most audiences might think at first. Regular moviegoers will get to see an unconventional heist thriller, cinephiles will get to pick apart the various movie references laying about, and documentary fans will be satisfied with its taught approach. In other directors’ hands, this could have felt extremely forced or unappealing. Thankfully, with enough dramatic heft to match the stylish fun presented throughout, American Animals blends fact and fiction seamlessly into unique entertainment. Bart Layton is highly talented as a documentary filmmaker, but this shows he’s just as confident and comfortable with a narrative feature. Let’s hope both he and Evan Peters have amazing careers ahead of them.

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“Tag” Movie Review

If playing a simple game of tag was all I had to do to stay in touch with my friends for the next few decades, I would have started playing that long ago. Probably not nearly as intensely as these guys, but still, it’d be a lot of fun. Produced on a budget of $28 million, this high-concept comedy was released on June 15th, 2018. Despite facing some tough competition from Incredibles 2, it has done surprisingly well so far by raking in over $48 million worldwide. Directed by first-timer Jeff Tomsic, previously helming episodes for the Comedy Central show Broad City, the wacky story takes its inspiration from an unbelievable article in The Wall Street Journal. The film was originally written with Jack Black and Will Ferrell in mind to star before scheduling conflicts got in the way. Having reduced the number of players from around 10 to just 5, one of the stars ended up breaking both his arms during filming; they had to be recreated with CGI. Based on an absurd true story, (No, I’m not kidding) the movie follows 5 life-long friends from the state of Washington. For the past 30 years, they have all played the same game of tag in the month of May, going to ridiculous lengths and spending enormous amounts of money to not be “it.” One of their friends Jerry, who has never been tagged, is about to retire from the game and marry at the end of the month. The remaining 4 team up to do everything in their power to try and tag him before it’s too late. I love myself a fun, broad comedy every now and again. While studio comedies in recent years have floundered, special gems like The Big Sick or, more recently, Game Night have succeeded in making me laugh my ass off while still giving an engaging story to bite down on. For this reason, I was pretty excited to see Tag in theaters. Hearing the premise of the movie, alone, was crazy enough, but the added fact of it being based on a real-life story (For the most part) gave me even more incentive to watch it. And while Tag isn’t quite on the level of other aforementioned comedies, and certainly isn’t a genre masterpiece, it can still be a pretty fun time watching. It seems weird to say, but I think that the comedic aspects of the movie might be the thing ultimately holding it back. At its core, this is a genuinely heartwarming story about a group of buddies who play tag as a way of sticking together throughout multiple decades. It’s something very special to these men, repeatedly quoting Benjamin Franklin by saying, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” There are certainly moments that perpetuate that sentimentality throughout the movie, especially in the back half. But it feels as though more effort was put into watching these men humiliate themselves trying to tag each other. Granted, the source material does lend itself well to comedy and there were definitely more instances of me laughing pretty hard than not laughing at all. But still, it felt like that extra bit of cynicism wasn’t really needed to begin with. For what it’s worth, the 5 lead actors do a solid job and share believable chemistry enough to carry the movie through. Played by Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnston, Ed Helms, and Jeremy Renner, the men all bring unique quirks to the group. Renner is the one playing Jerry, and seeing his charm and wide smile seep through his pride is really fun, relying more on physical comedy than expected. Helms, whom I’m not typically a fan of, is definitely the heart of the group, bringing them all back together and suffering multiple injuries in a deadpan manner. The other 3, while really funny, are pretty exactly what you’d expect from the actors. Other supporting players like Isla Fisher as the hyper-competitive wife to Helms’ character, Rashida Jones as a long-lost love to Hamm and Johnston, Anabelle Wallis as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal following these friends, and Verizon’s Thomas Middleditch as the unsuspecting owner of a fitness center all provide their own funny moments that help propel the ridiculous plot. Meanwhile, similar to this year’s Game Night, the technical aspects do a nice effort to distinguish Tag from other studio comedies. Larry Blanford’s widescreen cinematography is smooth, steady, and slick, moving from one attempt at tagging Jerry to another with ease. The balanced lighting and shadows make for an intriguing suspense, as the friends could sprout up from nearly anywhere and take each other by surprise. This pairs rather well with the editing job by Josh Crockett, which is smart enough to show everything that happens just enough to keep us in stitches. The coolest aspect of the film by far is when it takes inspiration from the hyper-stylized fights in Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes. By this, I mean that certain scenes where the crew is trying to tag Jerry are undercut by Renner’s narration of what’s going to happen, followed by slow-fast-slow moves of the attempts. Normally, something like this would be distracting to me, but I found it rather engaging and different. With a capable cast, unique filmmaking techniques, and just enough substance to overcome its style, Tag is a funny, undemanding diversion of comedy. It’s nothing special or groundbreaking at all, but if you just want something sweet and funny to watch, you could certainly do worse. It’s quick, harmless, but also unambitious. And frankly, with this absurd story driving forward, it doesn’t really need to be.

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